It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Nov 2, 2008

Hotheaded Naked Ice Borers

The April 1995 issue of Discover Magazine contained a brief article (in its “Breakthroughs” section) about the hotheaded naked ice borer, a fascinating new Antarctic species recently found by wildlife biologist Dr. Aprile Pazzo.

The full text of the article:

Aprile Pazzo was about to call it a day when she noticed that the penguins she was observing seemed strangely agitated. Pazzo, a wildlife biologist, was in Antarctica studying penguins at a remote, poorly explored area along the coast of the Ross Sea. "I was getting ready to release a penguin I had tagged when I heard a lot of squawking," says Pazzo. "When I looked up, the whole flock had sort of stampeded. They were waddling away faster than I’d ever seen them move."

Pazzo waded through the panicked birds to find out what was wrong. She found one penguin that hadn’t fled. "It was sinking into the ice as if into quicksand," she says. Somehow the ice beneath the bird had melted; the penguin was waist deep in slush. Pazzo tried to help the struggling penguin. She grabbed its wings and pulled. With a heave she freed the bird. But the penguin wasn’t the only thing she hauled from the slush. About a dozen small, hairless pink molelike creatures had clamped their jaws onto the penguin’s lower body. Pazzo managed to capture one of the creatures -- the others quickly released their grip and vanished into the slush.

Over the next few months Pazzo caught several of the animals and watched others in the wild. She calls the strange new species hotheaded naked ice borers. "They’re repulsive," says Pazzo. Adults are about six inches long, weigh a few ounces, have a very high metabolic rate -- their body temperature is 110 degrees -- and live in labyrinthine tunnels carved in the ice.

Perhaps their most fascinating feature is a bony plate on their forehead. Innumerable blood vessels line the skin covering the plate. The animals radiate tremendous amounts of body heat through their "hot plates," which they use to melt their tunnels in ice and to hunt their favorite prey: penguins.

A pack of ice borers will cluster under a penguin and melt the ice and snow it’s standing on. When the hapless bird sinks into the slush, the ice borers attack, dispatching it with bites of their sharp incisors. They then carve it up and carry its flesh back to their burrows, leaving behind only webbed feet, a beak, and some feathers. "They travel through the ice at surprisingly high speeds, " says Pazzo, "much faster than a penguin can waddle."

Pazzo’s discovery may also help solve a long-standing Antarctic mystery: What happened to the heroic polar explorer Philippe Poisson, who disappeared in Antarctica without a trace in 1837? "I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that a big pack of ice borers got him," says Pazzo. "I’ve seen what these things do to emperor penguins -- it isn’t pretty -- and emperors can be as much as four feet tall. Poisson was about 5 foot 6. To the ice borers, he would have looked like a big penguin."

Discover Magazine , April 1995


News of the penguin-eating ice borers drew more letters from Discover readers than any other piece in the magazine’s previous 15-year history. Most readers were amused and elaborated on the hoax. A few were chagrined and chastised us. Some of the letters should be consider as a natural extension of the funny hoax. Here are the letters from the June, 1995 Discover issue:

My staff and I were extremely excited to read about the hotheaded naked ice borers in your April issue [Breakthroughs]. What an extraordinary creature! This would be a fantastic addition to our collection and would, incidentally, increase our membership at a time when, like all nonprofit institutions, we are struggling to keep our heads above water (or perhaps more appropriately, above the ice).

Naturally, in the world of rare animals, it is the first institution to display the unusual that receives the most benefit. Therefore, in anticipation of being able to display these creatures, our board of directors has already approved an outlay of $2 million for the construction of a special area to house them.

We would like to contact Aprile Pazzo as soon as possible to receive from her a full description of the animal’s habitat, food, and recreational needs. In particular, we are hoping that the hotheaded naked ice borer can exist on something other than penguin. We had contacted the California Academy of Sciences in hopes of eliciting their cooperation on donating some of the weaker members from their penguin exhibit, but they were cool on the subject, to say the least.

We are looking forward to hearing from you as soon as possible, and meanwhile we wait in 110 degree anticipation.

Shigatsu Baka
The Small Mammal Zoo and Discovery Center
San Francisco


I am a fourth-generation descendant of the great Philippe Poisson, mentioned in your April issue. I wish to express gratitude to Aprile Pazzo for restoring the reputation of my ancestor. I have in my possession his diaries, recovered from his last known encampment. Here is a translation from the French of an entry dated April 1, 1837:

"Saw three of the Creatures today but failed to capture any. If I do not deceive myself, I am the first person to observe them. Their repulsiveness is formidable."

There follows a description of the hotheaded naked ice borers ("tetes-chaudes des glaciers") exactly as Dr. Pazzo found them to be. This description has always been dismissed as the result of an unfortunate tendency of my forebear to abuse absinthe, especially by the contemporary scholar Heinrich von Deresteapril.

Joan Walker


I am very surprised that DISCOVER would report the common ice mole rat as a scientific "breakthrough." It has been known for many years as the only terrestrial mammal in Antarctica. We have a rather large collection of these little mammals, known to us as Thermocephalus frigidash kemphos. You have illustrated only the rather plain female in your report. I am sure your readers would have been more interested in seeing the spectacular male with its striped purple-and-yellow head, which contrasts markedly with its dark blue posterior.

I must also point out an error in your reported body temperature of 110 degrees. The anterior body temperature is actually 107.6 degrees, whereas the posterior has a temperature of only 70.2 degrees. This anterior-posterior heat flux is important in preventing these ice mole rats from sinking through the ice sheets and is unknown in any other mammal.

Loof von Lirpa
Department of Vertebrate Zoology
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, D.C.


Last Christmas, on a visit to New York City, I was walking past the Central Park ice skating rink at twilight. The rink was already closed, but there was one lone skater practicing her figures. I was hurrying, but out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the skater losing her balance. Everything happened so fast. She seemed to be sinking into the ice, which had turned into a pool of slush about six feet in diameter. To my horror, she dropped out of sight in moments--but not before I saw a tiny, ugly, rodentlike head peer up briefly from the slush. I rushed over, but by then all that remained were the metal portions of the skates. Because I had had more than one drink at a friend’s office Christmas party, my mind could not accept what I had seen. I’m ashamed to admit that I brushed off this bizarre event. Like a typical New Yorker, I just didn’t want to "get involved."

Now I realize what must have occurred. As much as we have all been concerned about the northward progression of killer bees into our country, I’m afraid that I have more bad news to report. Apparently these horrid creatures, these ice borers, may be invading our temperate zone.

David L. Charney, M.D.
Alexandria, Va.


Aprile Pazzo’s discovery was fascinating, although not wholly unexpected considering Pazzo’s renown for fantastic and even unbelievable research observations. Further, although Pazzo is known to be on the cutting ice of science, in this instance it must be pointed out that her description of hotheaded ice borers is not new.

On April 1, 1950, Dr. Auguste Fou, while investigating the disappearance of several peewee hockey players in Quebec, discovered a colony of hotheads living in the ice between the blue lines at the hockey rink at which the players were last seen. Unfortunately, Fou was denounced by the Quebec Junior Hockey League; his findings were never made public, nor was he heard from again. Pazzo’s recent corroboration, therefore, is a welcome addition to the heretofore repressed information regarding a hot animal whose existence is now out of the deep freeze.

Robert Wolkow
New York


At first I suspected the old LSD in the coffee trick. Then I noticed that although it was March, I was reading your April issue. Your picture of the "ice borer" shows a Namibian mole rat with either an osteoma or a funny hat. Disregarding the evolutionary and geographical quandaries such a creature would present, let me deal with the inevitable metabolic problem. I am certain that experts in this field even now are calculating that in order to perform the thermal feats described, the creature would have to eat penguins for 483 hours each day. I have a solution: the beast has harnessed the secrets of cold fusion.

John O. Ives
Associate Professor of Psychiatry
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vt.


I want Aprile Pazzo to send me some hotheaded naked ice borers. This is the perfect solution for removing unwanted ice and snow from my driveway. It would also help me cull the flock of equally repulsive, unwanted bald-headed Chicago penguins that roost in my backyard every winter.

Robert Meyer
Buffalo Grove, Ill.


I read with keen interest your gripping article on the hotheaded naked ice borers and was reminded of another savage carnivore here in the Pacific Northwest: the dreaded Puget Sound fanged slug.

While this shell-less snail (class Gastropoda; subclass Pulmonata) measures only four to six inches long, convergent evolution has bestowed on it dentition identical to that of the great white shark. Additionally, this mollusk is capable of oozing forward with hideous speed, being clocked at 1.3 meters per hour during an attack.

Hunting in packs, the gastropods prefer to prey on the Northwest spotted owl, which the slugs stalk by smearing unspeakable slime trails on tree branches that the owl cannot then firmly grasp. As the slugs hunker in ambush, the unsuspecting bird (order Strigiformes) lands and suddenly finds itself upside-down and swinging like a pendulum from the buttered perch, talons gripping in astonishment. As is well known, the owl cannot initiate flight from this position and is thus forced to dangle stoically as the herd of maddened snails rushes in, fangs flinging spit.

It is the horror of every nature walker to come upon the disgusting aftermath of this plunder--two knobby owl legs suspended from a tree limb, a beak and feathers on the woodland floor, the forest serenity shattered by the belches of satiated slugs.

William Peters
Bothell, Wash.

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